Get your rewrite right: 3 rules for website owners

Rewriting your website? Most companies will make a pig's ear of it, says Catherine Toole. Get it right by following 3 simple rules.

 Get your rewrite right: 3 rules for website owners

How lovely to start the year with a call to 'rewrite your site' at number 1 in the top 5 things you need to do online in 2010. And what a shame most companies will mess that job up quite atrociously. In his post, Kevin Gibbons bemoans 'useless, static pages written without any understanding of keywords, often filled with poor spelling and grammar' - and of course he's right. Those things are inexcusable. But to me, the most inexcusable error of all is to fill your site with content that's just an insulting and irrelevant waste of visitors' time because there are so many stakeholders in your web content project that you can't get agreement on meaningful, scannable, customer-facing copy. To see page after page of succinct, web-friendly, findable copy with clear, bite-sized messaging get diluted with each round of 'feedback'.

First there's the insertion of inward-facing political messages from board-level management ('In the current economic climate it is more important than ever to offer customers a blah'). Next comes the space-wasting, chest-beating hyperbole from Marketing ('We are the leading global solutions provider to the digital imaging market with solutions that are best of breed and bleeding edge...') Then the paranoid control-freakery of product managers ('You must put in 5 pages on how our patented anti-freezing zip system actually works on this fleece jacket!') And finally, there's the removal of plain language by compliance or anyone especially chicken ('Can you add a triple asterisk under 'Free Returns' and add that this only applies if you haven't pierced the cellophane wrapper, live in Wales and are standing on one leg?').

With all this destructive 'feedback', is it any wonder the end result of that site 'refresh' often turns out to be what my old French teacher used to call my critical appreciation of Sartre: 'une oreille de cochon'. Joking aside, I do empathise with the many talented web editors out there who are fighting the good fight for better web content against a barrage of internal interference. So if you are planning to start 2010 with a site rewrite, here are 3 tips from my past 10 years running a digital copywriting agency:

1. Every page should have a point 

I used to work at ad agency BBH, and one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that each creative brief begins with a statement of what the work should make people 'think, feel or do'. Imagine how much better your website would be if you were forced to answer that question for every page planned (and - dare I suggest - for the site overall). Equally the question: 'What do customers want from our website?' is asked far too rarely and can normally be answered pretty accurately by call centre staff, who I always try to get to early on in the content planning.

2. Start with a clean sheet

Too many site rewrites work on improving existing content - the applying of lipstick to the proverbial pig. Instead, start with your ideal web content plan and then see what you have that can be reused, edited or cut to fit. Almost certainly your existing web content will have grown haphazardly; the best thing you can do to improve it is to lose a load of pages. Or if that sets off your seo alarm, then push those pages further down and add a succinct, usable landing, summary or product page that aids navigation.

3. Get buy-in from stakeholders at the outset, and limit the scope of their feedback 

Managing stakeholder feedback is essential if you're to avoid that sinking content-by-committee feeling on your site. Begin by identifying relevant stakeholders and letting them know the scope and purpose of the refresh project. Ideally, provide them with some examples of how content is likely to be refined. Give them a clear sense of what you expect from them, and within what timeframe. Compliance people don't need to feed back on grammar or tone of voice, just as the brand team don't need to comment on legal issues. Sometimes stakeholders provide feedback because they feel obliged to say something: give a cut-off point after which time you'll assume there are no comments if you haven't heard anything - and make it clear that it's OK to have no comments to make.